Interview with Thomas Kelly, the great novelist of the Big Apple’s builders, by Jérôme Diaz

Ecrit par Jérôme Diaz 03.04.17 dans La Une CED, Entretiens, Les Dossiers

Interview with Thomas Kelly, the great novelist of the Big Apple’s builders, by Jérôme Diaz

Cet entretien a été publié en français dans la Cause Littéraire


A New-Yorker from Irish origin, hard-boiled novelist Thomas Kelly is not as famous as he should be, at least in France, where this literary genre is very popular. What do his stories tell us ? They tell us about New York City, the workers’ world, the Irish diaspora, businessmen and mobs, policemen and FBI agents, altogether mixed in an atmosphere of bars and political battles at key times of the twentieth century… A world, to sum-up, somewhere between Dennis Lehane and Martin Scorsese’ TV-series Boardwalk Empire. So, that’s huge. And that’s really, really good. As a perfect connoisseur of the Big Apple’s political backstage for being involved himself, Thomas Kelly has built a work that goes from the tunnels to the skyscrapers, from the upper-class restaurants to boroughs where one shouldn’t hang around. A work that reminds of Jack London and Emile Zola, Colum McCann and James Ellroy. In 1998 he published Payback, and only a very few interviews were made of him, notably in France by his own translator Pierre Bondil – thanks to who what follows could be done – for « 813 », a French magazine for fans of crime stories. And since then nothing… until today.

– Like any good novelist (1), you have done an amazing number of jobs – leader of the truck drivers’ syndicate in New York City, adviser to the N.Y.P.D. and to two mayors of the city – before starting to write… What induced you to write stories ? And why precisely did you choose the « hard-boiled novel » genre ?


I was a voracious reader as a child. I was lucky to grow up with two parents who read a lot and inspired me to do the same. This was despite the fact that my parents had very little formal education. My father grew up in an immigrant family and dropped out of school at fourteen to go to work. My mother had to leave school at sixteen to support her mother.


In terms of the genre – I was inspired to write the stories I did while working in the building trades in New York City. While my books are genre in one sense – they are very much social realism in another.


– You say inspiration came while you were « working in the building trades » : can you give the example of a situation, or a character, that triggered your desire of telling stories ?


When I was working as a sandhog – the union that builds all the tunnels in NYC, I was struck by the realization that very few of the eight million New Yorkers had any idea of the work we were doing. New York City ran out of potable water in the 1840’s – it only exists because of the work of the sandhogs who constructed the tunnels that bring two billion gallons of water a day into the city. I was determined to tell the story of those men. In American fiction there is a real dearth of stories about working class men and women.


– Your work makes the reader think of a realistic fresco, with a fierce glance on the elites, a true empathy for society’s pariahs that reminds of Zola, Steinbeck, Jack London or Upton Sinclair (2). In which way did these writers inspire or influence you ?


I was a huge fan of all those writers and of others like Dickens and Stendhal. I very much want to tell stories with a broad canvas that show all aspects of life in America.


– Among these authors, are there novels from them you really loved and that, maybe, you would advise to read ? Moreover, do the works by non-fiction authors like Howard Zinn or Louis « Studs » Terkel echo your desire of painting the whole American society ?


In terms of the books that made me believe I could be a writer and that I had an important story to tell there were five : The Wanderers by Richard Price, Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins, The Pope of Greenwich Village by Vincent Patrick, and Red Baker by Robert Ward. All of these books depict characters that felt real and accessible to me.

I was a big fan of Studs Terkel – I think his work was vital and well worth revisiting today.


– Your stories take place at specific times of the XXth century : the 1930s, 1980s, and 1990s. Why did you focus on these decades to speak about New York City, and more generally, about the American society ?


I chose those times for different reasons. The 1980’s where a time of enormous separation of the classes in America. The Reagan era boom was good for some but not great for many others. I wanted to depict what the dark side of that boom was – that there was a price to be paid by the many so a few might enrich themselves. I believe that the seeds of many of our current problems (and the rise of Trumpism) were sown in those years.

Empire Rising takes place in 1930, which, although no one could realize it at the time, was a pivotal year in the history of New York, America, and the world. It was when in New York the gangster supplanted the machine politician as the true power in the city. Of course this was the ironic result of the puritan elitist desire to keep immigrants in their place by enacting Prohibition. Also, the Wall Street crash was still new and its horror was not yet fully understood. The Empire State Building was the last great private sector project built in America for another fifteen years.

As for the 90’s – that was just the time I was writing The Rackets. I wanted to do a contemporary story.


– You mentioned Reagan era as what led to the present situation, and now « Trumpism ». Regarding this, and the fact you know very well the political sphere, how do you see movements such as Occupy Wall Street, born after the 2008 financial crisis and that slowly collapsed ? Does the solution to these problems come from the civil society ?


I think it is vital that we stay engaged in the political process. People need to educate themselves about the issues – most people seem to vote purely based on emotional appeals and not reasoned thinking – or sadly, not vote at all. Because of technology (way more than globalization) there are major shifts in the structure of world economies – far fewer workers are needed to produce the same amount of goods. In the United States we do not have a strategy to deal with these changes. So we end up with millions of people slipping through the cracks and feeling alienated from society. That can only lead to trouble.


– Empire Rising describes the construction of the Empire State Building in the 1930s. Even though we’re still in the « hard-boiled novel » genre (the funds for the construction « belong » to the Irish mob), the style here is more epic and powerful, in the spirit – and the myth – of the famous pioneers. There is notably this wonderful scene in which your female character, Grace, a painter, is observing and drawing the workers on the construction site from a building on the other side of the street… How did you develop this story and where did the idea come from ?


This book grew out of two separate ideas. One, was quote from James Ellroy who said that if he was to write about crime in America he had to write about the assassination of JFK. I felt if I was going to write about construction and corruption in NYC I had to write about New York in 1930 – and more importantly the Empire State Building which represents New York to America and America to the world.

The second spark for the book was family history. Michael Briody in the book is based on my great uncle of the same name who was killed in New York in 1930. Nobody seemed to know what happened to him so I made up a whole book « solving » his death. Also, Grace is based on my great aunt who like the character in a book was an immigrant who lived on that house boat in Brooklyn.

Also, I was lucky to interview a man who was one of the last living workers from the ESB – he gave me some wonderful anecdotes like the scene where they turn the site into an after hours gambling den.


– You’ve quoted James Ellroy ; are there other contemporary writers, whether they are Americans or not, you feel a kind of link with (style, atmosphere…) ?


That’s a tricky one – you try to have your own voice. And when I am writing I usually avoid reading fiction.


– Your writing is also very visual, cinematographic : we think of Sergio Leone (immigration in Empire Rising), James Gray (family ties in Payback) or the Boardwalk Empire TV-series… Does a New-Yorker version of The Wire seem possible to you ? Media had mentioned a possible adaptation of Empire… by filmmaker Guy Ritchie… Will it become a reality one day ?


I am working on a few projects. I would love to do a New York The Wire. Stay tuned. It does not look like film version of ER is going forward. I am currently developing it as a ten hour – which it really needs if it is to be done effectively. Turning it into a 100 page script was quite painful !


– In 2009, you were involved in the TV-series The Black Donnellys (3) as a « technical adviser ». What/who did bring you to work on this show, and what did your contribution consist in ?


I was brought on by one of the creators, Bobby Moresco. I helped develop stories for the series.


– After these three novels, is there a fourth coming soon ?


Working on one now…


– Tiebreaker : Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton ?


Well it is too late now – but I am a big fan of Hilary Clinton.


– According to you, what is the role of a writer ? If he brings stories to readers, does he have to share any message ?


I think the role first is to entertain and secondly to tell a bigger story that relates to the human condition and perhaps educates. I always try to write on those two levels – one, keep people turning the page and secondly to depict aspect of life that they may not be privy to. For instance – in Empire Rising the story is about a love triangle set against the building of the Empire State Building – but it also describes what life was like for immigrants in America at a time when economic depravation was starting to turn us against each other. You hope that you elicit empathy and maybe in even small ways – bring us to a greater understanding of each other.


Interview conducted by Jérôme DIAZ, with the help of Pierre BONDIL


(1) Having found out about this great author by pure chance, the conductor of the interview has written a review – in French – of Thomas Kelly’s three books published in French (Rivages/Noir), on the website La Cause littéraire :

(2) Authors mentioned by Thomas Kelly here :

(3) Shown in 2009, this TV-series written and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash) follows four American-Irish brothers (the Donnellys), owners of a bar, and we witness the increasing power of the organized crime upon New York City. In spite of its qualities, the series lasted only one season.


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A propos du rédacteur

Jérôme Diaz


Jérôme Diaz : Passé par le monde associatif-humanitaire, la recherche en politique internationale et le journalisme, ayant arpenté entre autres les terrain africain et proche-oriental, je suis diplômé du Master 2 Sécurité Internationale et Défense de la Faculté de Droit de Grenoble, durant lequel j'ai soutenu un Mémoire de recherche sur le conflit afghan via les relations entre les Etats-Unis et le Pakistan.

Bien qu'en recherche d'emploi, je m'apprête à repasser des concours de la fonction publique.

Féru de longue date de: littérature, cinéma, musiques